Student activists in the UK have accused a prominent London university of legitimising the Israeli occupation of Palestine by inviting a former member of the Israeli army, Hen Mazzig, to speak on its campus.
University College London (UCL) has been criticised for directly inviting the former Israeli soldier who now plies his trade for the country’s propaganda arm as a representative of the Israeli-government funded lobby group StandWithUs.
Mazzig presents himself as a former “humanitarian officer” in the Israeli military; a misleading description which appears to have played favourably with UCL management team who had been mulling over the decision to invite him for the second time, despite the controversy surrounding the former “Coordinator of Government Activities in the [occupied] Territories”.
Mazzig spent five years in the Israeli army overseeing an illegal occupation and a military regime denounced by human rights groups as an apartheid state. The self-described advocate for Israel has worked with a number of lobbying outfits including CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
Defending their decision to invite Mazzig for a second time, the university said that a “pledge” was taken by UCL President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur “to invite back Mr Mazzig, a former humanitarian officer in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), as a demonstration of the university’s commitment to freedom of speech”.
In the statement, Arthur mentioned that he does not chair many meetings like this but he wanted to chair the meeting with Mazzig himself “to show that [we] take free speech very seriously”.
Students at UCL told MEMO that the university had gone to extraordinary lengths in order to invite Mazzig back following the controversy that has surrounded him since his last visit in October 2016. While his first visit was organised by the UCLU Friends of Israel Society, the invitation to address students last week at a closed event came directly from the university’s hierarchy.
The 2016 event was disrupted by a protest organised by a number of pro-Palestinian individuals and groups. Following the protest, UCL commissioned an investigation into the UCLU Friends of Israel Society event on 27 October 2016 where Mazzig was invited to speak.
In the 28 page report by Professor Geraint Rees, the dean of the UCL faculty of life sciences, revealed that the university had declined the room booking request by the UCLU Friends of Israel Society for Mazzig’s talk after discovering that it was in breach of the UCLU external speaker information procedure. The original request, the report concluded, had failed to indicate the controversy around the speaker and as a result the college had decided not to allow the talk to go ahead.
The President of the UCLU Friends of Israel Society, Liora Cadranel, appealed this decision, invoking UCL’s own guidelines on free speech and the matter was passed to UCLU Senior Management for consideration.
Following a second refusal, the UCLU Friends of Israel Society President sought advice from the UK Lawyers for Israel who advised a direct appeal to the UCL Provost, Michael Arthur, who considered the request for the event to go ahead, and agreed it could proceed after risk assessment.
The report provided details of the protest that followed and made a number of recommendations to avoid similar incidences while upholding the values and principals of free speech. However students at UCL told MEMO that they were surprised by Arthur’s pledge to invite Mazzig back to the university a second time.
Defending their decision to invite Mazzig back, UCL said “the university had not adequately protected freedom of expression on campus” because the event in 2016 went ahead in a “highly disruptive and intimidatory atmosphere and in an abbreviated form”. UCL hierarchy justified their decision “as reaffirmation of [our] commitment to free speech”.
Denouncing Arthur’s decision to invite Mazzig back to the college, members of the UCL student union pointed out the Provost had himself stated that he “will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence”.
The student, who did not want to be identified, said that Mazzig had made a number of remarks that were clearly racist. Putting aside his claim that he served under a “humanitarian” capacity in the occupied territory, which the student explained was just “doublespeak” to cover up the brutality of Israeli occupation, Mazzig had made a number of racially aggravated pronouncements on Twitter.
The student activist cited the tweet in which Mazzig vouched for an article in the Times of Israel, which was later deleted due to its racist tone. Titled “Nine Parallels between Palestine and Ferguson”, the offensive article by Robert Wilkes attacked African American protestors in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson and Palestinians as violent, “savage”, irrationally “angry” and deserving of the institutionalised state violence wielded against them. Mazzig described the author as “an amazing guy”.
Mazzig initially praised Wilkes’ article using the StandWithUS Twitter account but distanced himself from the piece. In response to a request for comment, Mazzig told the Electronic Intifada that he and his organisation disagree with Wilkes’ analysis. “We do not endorse the article. Neither do I,” he insisted. Asked why he initially tweeted praise for Wilkes, Mazzig replied: “It was not an endorsement. I didn’t read [Wilkes’ post] all the way through.”
In another post Mazzig makes a crass joke over the arrest of Ahed Tamimi by pointing out that 16-year-old Palestinian activist was whiter than the Israeli official next to her.
Lol white Palestinian arrested by black Israeli policewoman. https://t.co/LnHzYrSDVp
— Hen Mazzig (@HenMazzig) December 29, 2017
Critics described Mazzig’s comments as “crass on many levels. He is simultaneously poking fun at a girl who has spent her entire life under a military occupation, branding her a ‘criminal’ without even the pretence of a trial and making clumsy remarks about race in a futile attempt to contradict the voluminous evidence that Israel is an apartheid state.”
While indicating that Mazzig undermines UCL’s own commitment to tolerance and non-discrimination, the activist accused the university of double standards and failing to uphold free speech with equal determination when it comes to events organised by other societies including pro-Palestinian groups.
Prior to last week’s protest “against the normalisation of the Israeli occupation and apartheid” the student activists accused UCL of “whitewashing human rights abuse”. They called on UCL to “take effective steps to end its complicit role in the Israeli occupation, stop normalising the Israeli apartheid with such events, and stand with the UCL BDS campaign”.